Edgar Allan Poes The Tell Tale Heart English Literature Essay

Edgar Allan Poe, one of the most renowned American writers, is applauded specially for his tales. His tales are pregnant with chilling images and psychological realities. Being rich in the aspects of psyche, the writer has won the attention of numerous critics and much has been said in this regard. Poe was a drug addict and was a critical psycho patient. This devised the substance needed for his psychological tales as we find some dimensions of his writings going parallel with his life. Keeping this richness in mind the researcher has shown much interest in exploring the deeper perspectives.

This paper is an attempt to spot out Jungian aspects in one of Poe’s distinguished tales ‘The Tell-Tale Heart.’ ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, a story in which the narrator exasperated by the so called ‘Evil Eye’ of an old man commits the heinous crime of murdering him. During this whole time span – the planning and execution of the crime, the anonymous narrator has to go through a very profound psychological trauma which when analyzed in the light of Jungian concepts takes us to very startling realities. The Jungian aspects of psyche: conscious, personal unconscious, collective unconscious, shadow, persona, archetypes and anima/animus accentuate their presence as we go through the text.

The very title of the tale is so revealing. ‘Tell-Tale’ -Collins dictionary defines it as “allowing a secret to become known.” Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines it as “an outward indication of something concealed.” On surface level the title signifies that the narrator is sharing something very personal and secretive with us. In other words, the narrator is sharing with us his utmost evil doings which are otherwise kept secret. Psychoanalytically analyzing the title, we arrive at some very exclusive facts. The narrator shares some very secretive element with us which is lying deep somewhere in the unconscious and even the narrator is unaware of that but unconsciously shares it with us. Putting it more simply, the narrator unconsciously gives a vivid picture of the deep abyss of his unconscious. This picture that the narrator sketches out before us is inclusive of his past experiences, repressions resulting in the creation of shadow and the collective unconscious.

The tale opens with a dialogue where the narrator speaks to the readers and tries to give some justifications regarding his illness and being wrongly considered as mad.

“why will you say that I am mad?….. How, then, am I mad?” (p. 01)

Apparently it seems that the narrator is addressing the readers but the case seems to be quite different, as the narrator is most probably going through an internal dialogue with the unconscious. The narrator tries to pacify the voices that are coming from the unconscious, which term him as mad. The point that the narrator is in a dialogue with the unconscious can be substantiated by the fact that he says,

“I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell.” (P.1)

Such ‘acute hearing’ power is clearly a reference to the unconscious as the conscious portion of the psyche is very limited and restricted in potentials and capacity. In fact, it can be argued here that the narrator tries his level best to create a bridge between the conscious and unconscious so that the tension through which he is going is terminated once and for all. The narrator is, without any doubt, not mad but yet we cannot exempt him from psychological disorder. As we go through the successive incidents we arrive at a conclusion that the narrator has truly failed in creating that bridge and therefore he is far from individuation.

It would be injustice if the author of the tale is ignored here. As Oscar Wilde states,

“To reveal art and to conceal the artist is Art’s aim.” (P.1)

Here we see the picture of the artist, Poe, behind the scene. The tale seems to have a tinge of autobiographical realities. With regards to psychoanalysis we might come up with this argument that through narrator’s unconscious we are confronted with the unconscious of the author who is believed to have committed suicide most probably due to his devilish shadow. It is very likely that the author himself went through terrible traumatic experiences of the same kind and unconsciously depicted his shadow in the tale. This view is further consolidated when the narrator reveals one of his secrets by saying,

“…..I say I knew it well. I knew what the old man felt, and pitied him, although I chuckled at heart.” (P.5)

Here most probably the artist shares with us some awful past events of his life, which are stored in his unconscious, through the narrator. According to C.G Yung :

“Everyone carries a Shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is….. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected and is liable to burst forth suddenly in a moment of unawareness. At all events, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.” (Par 131 p.76)

Keeping in view the statement of Yung, in my opinion, for our narrator the ‘Evil Eye’ becomes a very horrible and devouring shadow. He is unable to satiate the shadow through conscious as the bridge is not created. We can also argue that in the past the narrator did have some ugly experience which might had something similar with that ‘Evil Eye” that’s why the moment he looks at the eye he is set on fire and behaves so much violently. In other words, looking at the eye refreshes some of his past incidents and which are further intensified as the narrator daily looks at that eye (“it haunted me day and night”) and the shadow takes the shape of a devastative volcano. Later on, we discover that the narrator is perfectly consumed by the shadow as he murders an old innocent man just for the sake of that one eye, as he confesses,

“Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the old man. He had never wronged me. He had never given me insult. For his gold I had no desire. I think it was his eye!” (p.3)

Hence the volcano is erupted bringing massive destruction.

Throughout the tale this shadow accompanies the narrator and controls him like a slave. At the scene of the murder the more demonized and horrible form of the shadow is represented by the loud beatings of the heart as the shadow gets uglier so is the beating of the heart getting louder and then the shadow does its work, the narrator kills the innocent old man in a most cruel way. It is also important to mention that the narrator doesn’t attack the old man until he discovers that ‘Evil Eye’ open, which clarifies that the energy that the shadow receives is there in that eye or to put it shortly the narrator is obsessed by that evil eye in the form of a shadow.

“It was the beating of the old man’s heart. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.” (P.6)

Even in the very last scene, the narrator is not free from the clutches of the giant shadow, however this time it projects itself in the form of guilt and once again the shadow’s (guilt) intensification is symbolized by the beating heart, which gets louder and louder and in parallel, the shadow gets more and more strength. Resultantly, the narrator unwillingly abandons the idea of concealment and shows his real face.

Conscious and the unconscious has been fabulously explained by Sigmund Freud with the help of the metaphor of ice berg where he stated that the conscious is like the “tip of the iceberg” whereas, the unconscious is like that bigger part of the ice berg which is hidden in the water.

Jung believed the same except for the addition of the collective unconscious. Even the narrator admits this extraordinary power of the unconscious when he says,

“Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers- of my sagacity.” (p.4)

This refers to the psychic energy which overcharges his unconscious in the form of shadow and this very energy is then projected in the conscious.

The scenes where the narrator keeps stalking the old man, and finally kills him, are very much symbolic with regard to the concepts of conscious and unconscious. Light which is emitting from the lantern is symbolic of consciousness and darkness which prevails in the room is the symbol for unconscious part of the mind. The lantern is covered in such a way that even a single ray isn’t possible to be discerned.

“I put in a dark lantern, all closed, closed, so that no light shone out” (p.3)

Same is the case with the conscious aspect of the narrator. The consciousness is totally dominated by the shadow which lies in the unconscious. As mentioned, the narrator is absolutely grasped by the unconscious and there is blackness prevailed over the consciousness. The idea is strengthened more by the fact that even physically the narrator cannot visualize the room. The ray which the narrator purposely emits from the lantern symbolizes the weak and confined nature of the consciousness. Conscious is weak and dark because of the fact that the narrator is not even in the least aware of his action and its consequences. He is so much willing and ready to kill a person just because his eye is disgusting. The image of the shadow becomes so much ghastly that after murder the narrator even dismembers the body into different parts. These signify that his consciousness is engulfed by thick black clouds. Persona according to Yung is:

“a compromise between the individual and society as to what a man should appear to be.” (p. 106)

It is a mask worn by the individual to hide their face which is not acceptable by the society and display that artificial face which is considered acceptable and favorable. The narrator for the accomplishment and concealment of his horrible crime wears different masks at certain places which might be singled out with much ease.

Firstly, the narrator confesses that in order to achieve his evil goal he has worn a mask of kindness before that old man as he says,

“I was never kinder to the old man than during the whole week before I killed him.” (P. 03)

The narrator hides his devilish desires under the garb of a kind hearted individual. Later he says,

“And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into the chamber, and spoke courageously to him, calling him by name in a hearty tone, and inquiring how he had passed the night.” (P. 04)

Here the narrator wears the robe of a very confident and bold person in order to hide his nervousness which could have alarmed the old man. The last scene is very important because there we have a very dynamic picture of the persona of the narrator which is overlapped by the feeling of the guilt and how his real face comes before the society. He says,

“The officers were satisfied. My manner had convinced them. I was singularly at ease…….” (p. 07)

Here once again his persona is so strongly projected and he attempts vainly to save his soul from the tentacles of the society but in vain.

The archetypes show themselves randomly throughout the text. According to Jung:

“Archetypes are innate, requiring like instincts no conscious learning for their acquisition. Unlike instincts, we are not directly aware of their existence.” (p.58)

They are thousands of years old and are not developed or evolved as they are inherent.

At the very beginning of the tale the archetypes of God, Satan and mother earth are mentioned. As already mentioned that these voices come from the unconscious, we can argue that these actually come from the collective unconscious as the very content of collective unconscious is archetypes and these display themselves through conscious as we consciously recognize them in our surroundings. Secondly, the archetype that we come across is that of the old man who symbolizes wisdom, innocence and helplessness. The old man is presented as a very noble and gentle individual and till the end we find him in a very pious frameset of mind and he is so much helpless and unaware when the narrator is upon his head murdering him. The narrator is the projection of the devil archetype as we find him totally against the gentle, noble and pious nature of the old man. His acts are so much satanic that his guilt doesn’t allow him to escape. He is a true manifestation of devil as he is filled with hatred, brutality and cold blood runs through his veins. Moreover we have the archetypes of law and peace which is symbolized by the policemen. They also symbolize the archetype of authority and it is this very authority and law accompanied with the guilt which subject the narrator to bow before the policemen and hence the supremacy of law is displayed.

Anima is the female aspect of male’s psyche. Conversely, animus is the male aspect of female’s psyche. Considering the behavior and attitude of the narrator it seems very obvious that the narrator is a male therefore, ‘he’ is used throughout the paper on purpose. The characteristics which are attributed to anima are emotions, passiveness, indecisiveness and lack of will power whereas the animus is characterized by power, authority, reasoning, leadership and strong will power. Jung puts this simply as such that:

“The anima gives rise to illogical outbursts of temper; the animus produces irritating commonplaces.” (P. 87)

Hence both the anima and animus possess different qualities and both sets of qualities are essential for an individual therefore, the unification of both is important to successfully go through the painful process of individuation.

The narrator fails to go through the process of individuation successfully. One of the major reasons of this failure is the absence of the unification of the anima and animus. In fact we can boldly make a claim that the narrator is animus-possessed. To put it differently, the animus of the narrator is over developed and the anima is kept so much far away in the recesses of the mind. We can concretize our claim through certain textual instances.

Firstly, the mental faculty of the narrator is so much promising. He beautifully rationalizes the things in order to prove himself as wise and not mad. His sense of reasoning is really praiseworthy. The tale opens with his reasoning as he says that:

“…….why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses-not destroyed-…….” (P. 01)

From time to time the narrator purposely puts forward very convincing arguments in order to prove himself wise and remove the charge of being mad. He says,

“Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing.” (p. 03)

Similarly at another place he says,

“And now have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the senses?” (p. 06)

Likewise, at the end he creates very persuasive comments by saying that

“If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body…….First of all I dismembered the corpse……” (p. 07)

This serves as the best example for his reasoning capacity.

Secondly, the narrator acts so much cruelly. There isn’t even a single instance in the text where we find him displaying his soft corner for the old man. The thing that vexes him is that ‘Evil Eye’ but he very stone heartedly takes the life of the old man who is no match for him. He describes the scene as

“In an instant I dragged him to the floor, and pulled the heavy bed over him.” (p. 06)

This brings forward such an inhuman attitude on his part. His callous heart isn’t satisfied with this, he crossed all the limits when he “dismembered the corpse” and “cut off the head and the arms and the legs.” (p. 07) this shows that the narrator doesn’t have even the slightest shade of the anima. Similarly, his boldness and courage are also products of animus which he very clearly expresses.

In terms of anima, if we analyze the narrator we surely find him quite devoid of all the qualities or features that are associated with the anima. If anima were somewhat developed he would never have had the courage to commit such a heart wrenching crime and top of it to degrade human nature in such an ugly way.

There are certain elements in the tale which hints towards the narrator’s self individuation process. Self individuation process is extremely painful because during this process we confront such harsh realities about ourselves which we usually press to avoid having contact with them. Many fail to go successfully through this process.

In case of the narrator the elements which hinders the self individuation process are firstly the unconscious is too difficult for him to comprehend and make a bridge to it. The shadow is so much enormous that the narrator doesn’t have any other option but to give up.

In the process of individuation there is a great fear that a person becomes a psycho however, there is hope too that an individual become a philosopher and a wise person. In my opinion the narrator when says that

“TRUE!-nervous-very, very dreadfully nervous.” (p. 01)

Is actually showing an apprehension towards the dreadful process of individuation and this awe stays till the end.

During the whole process that is, the planning, committing and the concealment of the crime the narrator has to go through a very tough and rough time esp. in the form of waiting for hours, it is very probable that this rough and tough time is symbolic of the pain through which we go when going through individuation process.

The narrator’s tale is a tale of self-individuation where he tries to complete the circle of the self through unifying the conscious and unconscious aspects of the psyche but during this dangerous process the narrator collapses before attaining individuation as the bridge is never complete and the unconscious revolts against the narrator and engulfs him into the deep dark well of the shadow.

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